The annual Battle at the Border Wrestling Tournament, a two-day stream of constant wrestling matches between 535 athletes from 22 schools across the state, filled mats taking up the entire Blaine High School gym floor for half of Friday and all of Saturday last week. Hundreds of wrestlers, fans, parents, coaches, and members of the media filled every corner of the gymnasium.
For most of the tournament, the crowd’s attention was divided between four matches going on at once. But in the last round of finals, well after sunset on Saturday, one match outlasted the rest, and the entire mob focused in on that ring. The first row of spectators lay on their stomachs, the second row sat on the mat and the third row knelt. Behind the third row, people stood, craning their necks to get a better view and cheer on the two heavyweights as they grappled for the championship medal.
Inside the circle, hometown heavyweight junior Mike Antczak and Sehome senior Titi Lamositele struggled to gain the upper
hand. When an unstoppable force meets an immoveable object, movement slows and pressure increases, until something eventually gives. Antczak weighs 285 lbs. and, like an NFL center, he can move his weight with surprising quickness. Lamositele is built more like a linebacker, with less heft but more toned muscle. From standing starts, the two wrestlers collided and strained, slowly circling, and occasionally pushing each other outside the ring like sumo wrestlers, only to be called back in for restarts. The heavyweights fought evenly for three rounds, tying 1-1 as their match went into overtime, and the noise from the audience rose in increasing decibels.
The first 30-second overtime ended with no points awarded – a draw. In the second overtime, it was Antczak’s choice for starting position. At the advice of coach Craig Foster, Antczak elected the lower start position, although at first he looked unsure.
“You can do it,” Foster yelled over the crowd noise. Antczak got down on all fours with a look of pure determination on his face. When the whistle blew, Lamositele frantically shifted his weight, straining to keep Antczak down as Antczak slowly and steadily rose to a crouch. Antczak paused, then burst up and out, flinging his arms back and his opponent off for a clean point. The Blaine crowd released a triumphant yell, with a hometown victory a few seconds away. But as the clock ticked to zero and Antczak stepped back to avoid a takedown, the ref blew the whistle. He called Antczak for stalling and awarded a point to Lamositele. Half the crowd roared its disapproval, and the other half cheered for Lamositele. Foster argued the call, but to no effect. With the match tied and headed into a third overtime, Antczak had to start in the top position, with a fresh 30 seconds on the clock.
The ref’s whistle set off the third overtime round. Lamositele struggled powerfully but unsuccessfully to break out of Antczak’s bear-trap grip. It looked like Antczak was managing to hold back a freight train, but the audience could see on his face that he couldn’t hold much longer. In a feat of perseverance, Antczak managed to keep a grasp on his opponent for three consecutive restarts, with Lamositele pulling them quickly out of bounds to pause the clock, get back to the start position, and wear Antczak down. On the third restart, the interlocked opponents lumbered toward the edge of the ring as the seconds ticked away. They lurched out of bounds and the whistle blew with 10 seconds left in the round, the athletes headed to the center of the ring. This time, Antczak couldn’t hold on. The Sehome heavyweight broke free and won the match 3-2.
Foster later said it was the most thrilling end to a Battle at the Border that he could remember. “I got some goosebumps,” he said. “At one point, I mentally stepped back from the match and saw the whole crowd right there on the mat. In that moment, I got to enjoy high school wrestling at its best.”
Antczak was visibly upset over the loss. Even Lamositele shook his head as if to say it wasn’t exactly how he wanted to win. But Foster put the match in perspective.
“I argued the call, but that’s my job as a coach,” he said. “The ref’s been doing this for years, and he knows his stuff. I respect his call. I told Mikey to look at the big picture: it was a great match, and it will prepare him very well for the state tournament. In some ways, it might make him hungrier for state. He wrestled incredibly well against a great athlete, and I’m proud of him.”
Foster went on to say that he was proud of all his wrestlers, who as a team earned third place out of 22 schools with 217.5 points. Kentwood (4A) won the meet with 234 points, and 4A Todd Beamer came in second with 225 points.
“We’ve won this tournament in the past, but it’s the type of thing where a key loss here and there based on just a point or two will set the team back, and overall I’m very pleased with how we wrestled,” Foster said. “We had more kids placing [in the top six in their weight class] this year [there were nine]than we may have ever had.”
Junior Caleb Johnson took home the 220-lb. championship after a dominant match and a pin in the second round against Woodland’s Zach Wardle. Junior Kyle Gonzalez won the 106-lb. championship against a fierce Beamer opponent, Malik Messiah, with a strong technical performance and a 13-3 decision.
“I’ve been working on my fireman, which is a five-point move that breaks the opponent down,” Gonzalez explained. “It seemed to work pretty well today.”
Stuey Rasar placed fifth in the 106 lb. weight division. Anthony Frey placed sixth at 126 lbs., and Caleb Frey placed sixth at 132 lbs. Justin Belding placed third in the 145 lb. weight division, with Christian Sharp placing fifth in the same division. Jon Stewart placed fifth at 160 lbs.
The Battle at the Border is one of the largest wrestling tournaments in the state. With 22 schools competing in 14 weight divisions, it’s also one of the longest. Athletes were tucked under blankets in the stands and in the corners of the building, trying to catch a few z’s between matches.
Announcer John Liebert was tired as well after two days of near constant speaking into a microphone. He called athletes to their mats on a minute-by-minute basis, with volunteer ‘gofers’ running slips denoting upcoming match-ups and results from each mat to the announcer’s table.
Liebert said he was blown away by the final match.
“Titi’s a football stud, and he’s going overseas to play rugby,” he said. “I was impressed Mikey did so well against him.”
Blaine athletic trainer Alisa Burke reported no major injuries this year, aside from scrapes and a few bloody noses, which is an improvement over last year when the ambulance was called twice – once for a dislocated shoulder and once for a back injury.
Foster said he felt good overall about the Battle at the Border. “It takes such an effort from our community to put this together,” he said. “It sounds weird to say it, but it’s always a relief when it’s over. Now we can focus on wrestling again.”